From the beginning, TISM were crass, puerile, and aimed their contempt at all, from journalists to their own fans, and even themselves. They made their live debut in 1983 with ‘The Get Fucked Concert’ (disbanding immediately after, only to reform the next year), and released their debut single in 1985, ‘Defecate On My Face’.
The band’s name is an acronym for This Is Serious Mum, but everything they did suggested they should not be taken seriously. Yet, despite their best efforts, including hiding their identities behind masks, the band are revered as Australian treasures, and their songs praised as ‘visionary’ by politicians – a class of people reviled by the band.
Their back-catalogue of screeds against wankers have been difficult to obtain, but recently the band have uploaded most of their output to Spotify, including a newly released live recording. “We look forward to great success on Spotify, and hope to achieve the 4.7 million downloads it will take for them to pay us the final $7.50 we need for our osteoarthritis pills,” the band shared in a press release.
The nostalgia prompted by revisiting their discography has led to us analysing TISM’s biggest hits, discussing the high- and low-brow references, and all sorts of wanky philosophising.
(He’ll Never Be An) Ol’ Man River
It was Section 63 of the British Government’s 1994 Criminal Justice Act that defined rave music as music “characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats”. Authorities blame such music as encouraging ‘antisocial behaviours’ such as noise, mass congregations, and consuming illegal substances, especially MDMA. In 1995, Australia’s ‘moral majority’ were taken aback when a repetitive beat drilled across the airwaves, with a voice shouting over it, “I’m on the drug that killed River Phoenix”.
Acclaimed actor River Phoenix passed in 1993 at the age of 23 after overdosing on a mixture of heroin and cocaine outside LA’s The Viper Room, leaving the world in shock. Red Hot Chili Peppers’ bassist Flea was present, and the memory led to rage in 2008 when he heard TISM’s song while being interviewed on Triple J.
The list of celebrity deaths grows as the song continues: Bon Scott, Jimi Hendrix, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Mama Cass. However, a message within the depravity emerges: the vapidity of celebrity obsession. References to Edmund Hillary, the first man to climb Everest, and astronaut Neil Armstrong are followed with the lyric: “Heroes explore to give us hope/ River pushed the envelope”, i.e. praise for the daring heroism of pioneers has been superseded by the self-indulgent exploits of the rich and famous. Living fast and dying young makes for more exciting viewing than climbing a big rock, and the voyeurism leading to an addiction of its own(“I need another celeb to fill a coffin”), abated by the then dominant gossip rags that saw no problem in leaking the emergency phone call a panicked Joaquin Phoenix made as his brother lay dying before him. While many tabloid magazines have shuttered due to the coronavirus, social media has become the place for voyeurs to watch the likes of Kanye West suffer in real time.
The reason for TISM’s masks, according to singer Damian Cowell, was to “circumvent the cult of personality that is inherent in rock music by choosing to remain anonymous”. Ironically, ‘(He’ll Never Be An) Old Man River’ gave the band the fame they tried to avoid: it hit #23 on the ARIA singles chart, their highest charting song; took the ninth spot in Triple J’s Hottest 100 of 1995; and it’s album, Machiavelli And The Four Seasons, reached #8 on the ARIA album charts, eventually being certified Gold and winning an ARIA Award for Best Independent Release. And now they must see articles celebrating them, like this one.
In TISM’s misanthropic world, there are only two kinds of people: yobs and wankers.
A yob is a loutish, uncultured person, while wankers are contemptible, pretentious people who see themselves as better than yobs. The band makes the distinction clear in the first verse, asking listeners who their favourite genius is: former Essendon Football Club captain James Hird, or Irish writer James Joyce.
The dissonance of high- and low-culture have been a long-running concern in the TISM universe. Their hit-album, Machiavelli And The Four Seasons, references the Italian philosopher and the 60s doo wop group led by Frankie Valli, while singer Damian Cowell’s persona Humphrey B Flaubert is a combination of the Australian children’s television character Humphrey B Bear and French author Gustave Flaubert.
At a gig at St Kilda’s The Palace, the mixture of high and low, wanker and yob, was conceptualised for a show referred to as The TISM Opera. Behind the stage, bleachers were filled with formally dressed people condescendingly peering down upon the crowd before them. During the encore, the wankers tried to mingle with the yobs in the crowd, only to be pummelled.
While yobs and wankers view each other with contempt, TISM sees the two groups as similar: “Both of them are equally ugly/ The wanker hides it better”. The two groups would likely unite in their distaste for the thumping disco beat of TISM’s song, as they did in Chicago in 1979 for Disco Demolition Night. The event was organised by radio shock jock and rock-purist Steve Dahl, who was sickened by the dominance of disco. The DJ teamed with the White Sox baseball team for a promotion: bring a disco record to burn for a cheap ticket to the game. What began as stunt dripping with musical snobbery devolved into 50,000 people rushing to the field to burn whatever records they could, mostly by black artists, and eventually riot, their ugliness blazing bright.
Greg! The Stop Sign!!
The song’s title is inspired by an advertisement: a Victorian Transport Accident Commission (TAC) advertisement. In the ad, a group of youths are fooling around in a speeding car, distracting the driver as they approach an intersection and an oncoming car. As the stop sign appear, a passenger shrieks the driver’s name. However, instead of Greg, viewers hear, “Darren!”
Within the lyrics, the phrase is a euphemism for death’s swiftness, appearing just before a fatality. Its first appearance occurs as the narrator remembers figures from his youth, with many growing into the opposite – the guy who hated football comes to believe in disciplining offenders, the party boy becomes a lawyer, while the school captain’s potential is cut short by his death. The direction of a person’s life is unpredictable, say TISM, with different choices leading to many possible timelines, but they will all eventually end in death.
Alongside the ad, TISM reappropriates a number of songs – the solo comes from ‘FBI’ by The Shadows, while the bridge is recycled from an unreleased TISM song. The most noted influence on the song is that of The Beach Boys, with the opening “Ba-ba-bas”, high chorus, and other doo wop-esque vocals parts sharing similarities with the Californian bands’ output.
Coincidentally, both TISM and The Beach Boys found inspiration in advertisements. During the stressful recording of their magnum opus, Pet Sounds, Beach Boy Brian Wilson met Tony Asher, a copywriter responsible for jingles for Mattel toys. Wilson expressed admiration for jingles, and his struggle with writing lyrics for the overdue album led to him contacting Asher to help write lyrics.
Young audiences’ first exposure to The Beach Boys is likely through the huge amount of advertisements their songs have soundtracked. The band have been used to sell everything from soft drinks and chocolate to whitegoods and carpets. Their inclusion is likely due to the songs’ rights being owned by Almo/Irving Music, the music publishing group now absorbed by Universal Music Publishing Group. After many terrible financial decisions, Wilson’s father and the band’s manager, Murry, sold the rights to the band’s music in 1969. Twenty years later, Wilson sued for the rights back, citing his well-documented poor mental health at the time, but was unsuccessful, only being awarded for damages and recouping some royalties.
TISM’s song proved just as memorable, charting in the top ten of that year’s Triple J’s Hottest 100. However, one group who never forgot the song was the TAC. Last year, Melbourne Liberal Democrat politician David Limbrick attempted to honour the band by naming the Mordialloc Freeway after them due to a song they released about the road. TAC responded by reminding Limbrick that naming a road after TISM “would be problematic given the mixed messages on road safety in their songs like ‘Greg! The Stop Sign!!’ and ‘Anarchy Means Crossing When It Say’s Don’t Walk’”.
TISM’s music is (finally) available to stream now on Spotify.